GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

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The Spectre
   see also The Wrath of the Spectre
 

Showcase presents The Spectre 2012 (SC TPB) 592 pgs

cover by AparoWritten by Gardner Fox, Michael Fleisher, Neal Adams, Bob Haney, others. Illustrated by Jim Aparo, Murphy Anderson, Neal Adams, Jerry Grandenetti, others.
Black & White. Letters: various.

Reprinting: Showcase #60, 61, 64, The Spectre (1st series) #1-10, Adventure Comics #431-440, The Brave & The Bold #72, 75, 116, 180, 199, DC Comics Presents #29, and Ghosts #97-99 -- in cases where comics feature multiple stories (Adventure Comics, Ghosts, etc.), the stories reprinted here are only The Spectre ones (1966-1983).

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed Mar. 2015

DC's Showcase presents... volumes were their answer to Marvel's Essential TPBs. Massive phonebook size collections on cheap paper in black & white collecting chronological runs of a character (as well as concurrent guest appearances). Or, in the case of The Spectre, a couple of different, short runs, basically reprinting the entirety of The Spectre's main appearances from the Silver and Bronze Age of comics (outside of teams like The Justice League or Justice Society where his participation might be secondary).

It makes for an odd collection because of some notable shifts in style and direction and intent.

The stories here can be heavy on the magical with The Spectre battling sorcerers and demons, perhaps modelled after Marvel's Dr. Strange -- or they're focused on gangsters and street thugs. The Spectre is either a level-headed hero who captures bad guys and at one point is condemned by higher powers for using excessive force -- or he's a wrath of God avenger who murders criminals with ruthless glee (so the stories range from family friendly romps to grisly horror tales). He's an affable personality, whom other heroes refer to as a "friend" -- or an enigmatic otherworld being. In the 1960s run he and his alter ego of Jim Corrigan are treated as separate beings who can pursue different aspects of a case simultaneously -- while in the 1970s stories Corrigan transforms into The Spectre (the latter version was how the character was originally presented in the 1940s, while the duo-persona version was later revived for a 1980s series). Heck -- in some stories, The Spectre is reduced to an observer of the story, not unlike The Phantom Stranger!

As such, there's a lot of variety to this collection -- and a lot of inconsistency.

The Spectre had been a Golden Age character from the 1940s, and was given a belated revival once DC was well and truly into its Silver Age renaissance. The character had doubtless had a few guest appearances in The Justice League of America but DC didn't really test the water until a run in Showcase by writer Gardner Fox and artist Murphy Anderson. Then there followed a couple of Brave & The Bold team-ups. The first, issue #72, pairing The Spectre with The Flash. The Flash is barely a presence, since the story involves the scarlet speedster being possessed by an evil spirit (the ghost of an air ace intent on getting revenge on his former squadron) so the Flash barely exists as a personality.

DC's Silver Age revival gave rise to their parallel earth concept. The modern heroes on Earth 1, the 1940s heroes on Earth 2, and sometimes dopplegangers on both. So in B&B #72 the setting is identified as Earth 2 (The Earth 1 Flash is just visiting). Yet in the next appearance, B&B #75 (now teamed with Batman -- B&B eventually switching over to all-Batman team ups) there's no reference to parallel earths, implying this Spectre lives on Earth 1.

In The Spectre's 1960s solo adventures the occasional guest star (Wildcat), occasional familiar villain (The Psycho-Pirate) and passing references to the Justice Society (as opposed to Justice League) alert the attentive readers that it's Earth 2. While in the subsequent Adventure Comics run characters are skeptical that a super being like The Spectre even exists and in one issue joke about the Superman/Clark Kent "secret" identity, leading one to infer this Spectre is on an Earth where super heroes don't exist (perhaps Earth Prime, which was DC's name for the earth where their super heroes only existed as fictional characters). Which might mean The Spectre in these stories isn't the same as the one who made guest appearances with other characters.

The art varies throughout, yet is rarely less than good.

Murphy Anderson -- drawing the initial Showcase stories and the first issue of The Spectre comic -- is a kind of odd choice for a supernatural series. But his bright, realist art is appealing, giving a weirdly literalist interpretation to cosmic scenes of The Spectre throwing asteroids around! He's then replaced by Neal Adams whose lithe, organic figures and more dynamic composition is perhaps more suited to the character -- at least moving it away from the clean cut super hero look of Anderson. Then he is replaced by Jerry Grandenetti (with Anderson inking) -- Grandenetti lacks the realism of either Anderson or Adams, but perhaps does the best job of imbuing the series with a more explicitly Gothic vibe, with weird landscapes and eclectic composition, Grandenetti having worked with comics pioneer Will Eisner. When the character returns for the mid-1970s Adventure Comics series it is with Jim Aparo on board, though with sometimes uncertain credits -- with others sometimes co-credited (as though maybe they were inking his pencils, or maybe he was drawing over their lay-outs).

There are different writers throughout.

Gardner Fox writes the earliest stories with a straight forward approach to plot. Although his other credits (as a mainstay of DC's 1960s) might make you wonder how much he was into the blatant fantasy of The Spectre, he clearly knows something of the milieu (often references to arcane aspects, or historical events, are true). But his approach to the plotting is basically just kind of protracted fights, introducing a supernatural threat (a demon or ghost) that The Spectre must duke it out with for the majority of the issue, the imagination expended on the "anything goes" aspects of The Spectre's powers (expanding to the size of planets, fighting across dimensional planes) rather than plot twists. Neal Adams, who had already come on board as an artist, then takes over the writing for a few issues, and imbues the plots with a little more mystery, so we're sometimes waiting to learn what's going on, or why, as much as just waiting to see The Spectre trounce the villain -- though it still remains primarily focused on the fantastical fights.

Throughout there's little effort expended on characterization of either The Spectre or Jim Corrigan, or much continuity. In one issue a case brings Corrigan into contact with a pretty heiress, and in the next issue they are dating -- but then she's dropped from the series. While in one of Adams' issues, in an unusual bit of "retconning," a plot point refers back to a scene from The Spectre's first Showcase appearance.

And though The Spectre has come to be associated with dark, horror-themed stories, with later writers eager to embrace him as a chance to exorcise all their darker creative demons that are stifled by nice guy heroes like Superman, in these early stories there's none of that. The Spectre mainly focuses on supernatural dangers, and he isn't prone to murder or mayhem.

This view of him is driven home all the more when, toward the end of The Spectre's self-titled comic, there's an editorial shift. New writer Steve Skeates comes on board with a story where The Spectre over reacts to a crisis and so is punished by higher powers by being given a random weakness (literally: he's told he won't know what his weakness is until it comes upon him). Clearly sales weren't great and the editorial thinking was that The Spectre was too powerful, robbing the stories of any real suspense (or logic!) and needed some sort of Kryptonite.

But immediately an even greater shift was settled on and the next issue once again plays up the idea of The Spectre being punished for being too ruthless. But now his punishment is to act as an observer and chronicler of evil deeds, basically turning the comic for its final two issues into horror/mystery anthology of shorter tales with The Spectre as a slightly intrusive host (perhaps modelled after the Phantom Stranger).

After that it's about five years before DC decided to try him again (barring things like Justice League appearances). And once more in a pre-existing title (Adventure Comics). Since the previous version hadn't worked, sales-wise, obviously DC was looking for something to shake it up. And just a few years before this the omnipresent Comics Code had loosened its previous restrictions.

So enter writer Michael Fleisher (with Aparo et al, including Russell Carley who is credited with an ambiguous "script continuity" but seemed to help out both with plotting and art on some issues).

This new take on The Spectre is kind of a mix of early '70s tough guy crime dramas (from Dirty Hairy to British TV's The Sweeny) with blatant EC Comics-style horror and, as mentioned, seems deliberately removed from the regular DC Universe. Mostly gone are the demons and supernatural foes, and instead the stories generally involve mobsters and bank robbers of no conscience murdering their way through the first few pages. Then Det. Corrigan is called in, immediately switching to The Spectre (more or less dispensing with the idea of them living separate lives) who then tracks down the criminals and kills them in grisly, supernatural ways -- from melting them, to (literally) crushing them beneath a giant rubber duck to, in one of the series more notorious scenes, turning the villain into a wooden statue and then The Spectre calmly feeds it through a buzz saw!

Quite a switch from The Spectre being condemned by higher powers for excessive force, eh?

The claim was that Fleisher (and subsequent writers who have followed his lead) was simply returning the character to his original, pre-Gardner Fox incarnation. And though there's some truth to that, it's also grossly exaggerated. I've read a few of the original Jerry Siegel/Bernard Bailey stories and though they started out with a more murderous Spectre, even in those early day there seemed to be a shift toward more Gardner Fox-like tales, with more emphasis on supernatural foes and a far less homicidal Spectre!

The Adventure Comics revival was quite a memorable and notorious series (I detail it more in my review of the earlier TPB collection, The Wrath of the Spectre ) but I'd also argue significantly overrated. Even the popular claim that it was cancelled by nervous editors concerned over controversy has never really gelled into anything more substantial than a rumour encouraged by fans unwilling to accept poor sales as the reason. Because the truth is, the plots are simplistic (admittedly, many only 12 pages or so) failing even on the basic level of irony (Fleisher rarely coming up with a demise that aesthetically suits the crime). They're atmospherically drawn by Aparo and company, and boast a ghoulish novelty at first. But honestly, Fleisher's handling of things like plot (or logic) or characterization isn't significantly more sophisticated than Gardner Fox's in the 1960s stories.

Fleisher does try to make Corrigan/The Spectre more embittered about his undead existence. And there is a sub-plot involving a liberal reporter appalled by The Spectre's ruthlessness. But it never does much to turn the comic into an exploration of philosophies since one assumes Fleisher and the others were perfectly okay with The Spectre's actions (a 1980s revival by writer Doug Moench seemed a little more sincere in its exploring of ethical complexity). Though interestingly, Fleisher does give Corrigan a love intest -- Gwen -- an heiress he meets on a case and becomes a recurring girlfriend in echoes of Mona from the Fox stories.

Perhaps the real problem lies with The Spectre himself. Despite the contrasting approaches to the character (Fox's cosmic super hero battling supernatural foes and Fleisher's dark, ghoulish vigilante) in neither series does Corrigan or The Spectre really emerge as that involving a personality, and with his limitless magical power, the stories can be fun for their "anything goes" imagination, but could benefit from better rules and limitations on The Spectre's power to generate suspense.

Fleshing out this collection are some team up stories: including three shorter tales from the supernatural anthology Ghosts in which The Spectre shares the stories with DC's resident ghost-buster, Dr. Thirteen. Plus there's the Flash (B&B #72), Batman (in four B&B issues) and Superman (DC Comics Presents #29) -- and, of course, the team up with Wildcat in The Spectre #3. In a way, some of these stand as among the best stories in this collection -- in part because many of them function as "stories," where we don't necessarily know who's doing what or why within the first few pages the way we do with a lot of the Fox and Fleisher tales.

Funnily, what is pretty much the last Spectre story here -- chronologically speaking -- from B&B #199 actually feels a bit like it was deliberately trying to tie together various aspects of the character. So The Spectre is certainly a threatening, wrathful figure ala Fleisher's version (although more implied than demonstrated) yet the plot has supernatural villains and involves a cosmic battle hurtling planetoids around ala Fox's version (and it's illustrated by Ross Andru, who drew The Spectre back in his first Batman team-up in B&B #75!)

What's missing from this collection I believe (not having the actual TPB in my hands) is the "lost" stories from the Fleisher/Aparo era which finally saw print in the 1980s as part of the deluxe format reprint series Wrath of The Spectre (and are included in the TPB of that name). I guess DC wanted to restrict the Showcase presents collection to comics actually published at the time.

In the end, this Showcase collection is an unusually mixed bag compared to other such volumes. It presents such dramatically different versions of the character I could well imagine a reader who liked one take on the character might hate the other. At the same time, that's also an appeal -- the variety in tones, styles, and art meaning no one type of story has to overstay its welcome. Goofy 1960s cosmic adventures? Ghoulish and grisly horror? Super hero action with Batman and others? Even a few short supernatural anthology tales? This has it all.

Admittedly, nothing here is really that good. I think there's a reason The Spectre has struggled to maintain a long running series (no one's quite found the right formula). But with good art fairly consistently throughout, there's enough to keep you turning the pages.


The Spectre: Crimes and Punishments 1993 (SC TPB) 100 pgs

coverWritten by John Ostrander. Illustrated by Tom Mandrake.
Colours: Digital Chameleon. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Dan Raspler.

Reprinting: The Spectre (3rd series) #1-4 (1993)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2016

Published by DC Comics

One could argue DC's ghostly anti-hero, The Spectre, is a problematic property. Despite being a signature and even iconic figure, he's never really managed to sustain his own series for too long.

Now obviously that's a debateable assertions -- after all, this run ended up lasting a good 60 issues! But 60 issues isn't necessarily that impressive in a medium where popular characters run hundreds of issues uninterrupted. And this was the longest consecutive run of a Spectre series! Yet clearly editors feel he should work (this series was started only about three years after the cancelation of his last title). And over the years writers have tried different approaches, ranging from The Spectre as a kind of cosmic super hero, throwing asteroids at giant demons, to a deliverer of grisly vengeance on common variety crooks. In the run just prior to this, an emphasis was put on his alter ego of Jim Corrigan as a kind of hard boiled private eye with wisecracks and a comic relief secretary/love interest. While here, writer Ostrander goes back to a darker, grimmer, lone wolf Corrigan.

And maybe the problem is what makes The Spectre such a unique, distinct figure in comics is precisely why it's hard to sustain him (or sustain readers' interests). He's too powerful, the stories lacking clearly defined limitations to his powers, and the character himself is too inaccessible -- The Spectre deliberately so, and even Jim Corrigan not exactly a guy you can root for the way you can for Peter Parker or even Bruce Wayne. And the uncertainty whether the series is a super hero/adventure series, a mystery/detective series, or a horror series can also be a problem.

Not too mention it's a character that is often used to explore ethical issues (about vengeance vs. justice, The Spectre not only being a "hero" who regularly kills his opponents, but deliberately so, and often in sadistic or grisly ways) even as such moral debates are inherently hollow and pointless since he is, after all, the star of the comic so it's not like he's going to change! Spectre comics pay lip service to ethical debates -- but they're not sincere (comics about Wolverine and The Punisher are similiar).

The other problem with a property like this is that it can end up repetitive. Case in point is these first four issues which, while also giving us a couple of crimes he's investigating, are also greatly consumed with just retelling his origin -- how he was a police detective, murdered in the line of duty literally decades ago, and then transformed into God's wrath (here given the added twist that his mandate is to understand evil, not just punish it) . Which is fine if you've never heard the origin before -- more problematic if you have. Particularly as Ostrander doesn't really develop or embellish it enough to turn it into a defining origin tale (in the way that a lot of DC's origins were overhauled and expanded around that time in multi-part mini-series). Well, save that Ostrander throws in the idea that even before he became The Spectre Jim Corrigan was a ruthless, vigilante cop, happy to dispense extracurricular justice (further adding to that alienation from the reader I mentioned).

Along the way, the story introduces a woman who is intrigued by the enigmatic Corrigan and becomes privy to his secret.

Inbetween the origin retelling, there is a one issue investigation where The Spectre seeks to bring peace to the ghost of a dead woman by solving her murder. Arguably it more than anything else here shows Ostrander trying to find a way to tell monthly stories with his problematic lead. The Spectre may border on omnipotent, but he isn't omniscient, and he still has to investigate the crime. Although he does narrow his field of suspects simply because he can look into their souls to see if they're telling the truth. But it's unsatisfying as a mystery -- partly for the ease with which he can discount suspects, and also because the killer turns out to be someone barely even referenced. Still, Ostrander is genuinely trying to go for an emotional complexity, The Spectre finding even with all his powers he can't guarantee a happy ending.

The art by Tom Mandrake certainly suits the dark, horror tone, mixing aspects of, say, Steve Bissette with maybe Gene Colan. Although at the same time, its very dark, spooky aspect maybe means it's not exactly aesthetically pleasing -- deliberately so, I mean, not as a criticism of Mandrake. There's an intentional ugliness to the world and the figures. Mandrake's style can shift to suit the material, he having drawn some more conventional super hero comics, as well as other dark, horror stories.

Part of the problem with this four issue collection is that it clearly is just meant to highlight the origin story, presumably as a collection of the first four issues for those already reading the new series but who maybe missed these issues. Because there's actually a longer story arc introduced here, involving a serial killer targeting specific victims that goes unresolved in these pages. And just so we get a hint of where it's headed, that female character/possible romantic interest I mentioned? She matches the killer's type of victim, so one can guess it'll build to her being threatened (or killed) by the killer. But, as such, it means this four issue collection can feel abut unsatisfying, being only part of the longer arc (some years later DC released a later TPB reprinting the first eight issues of this run!)

Admittedly, I tend to be mixed toward The Spectre anyway. But this four issue collection didn't really grab me. Too much recycling of old themes and ideas (and his origin) without either finding something new to do with it or making the traditional ideas work better than they had previously (for a Spectre sceptic like me). But, with that said, I'm probably a tougher convert compared to others more predisposed to like old skulls-for-eyes.

Cover price: $__ USA. 



The Spider: Scavengers of the Slaughtered Sacrifices
is reviewed in my media tie-in section
 

The Best of THE SPIRIT 2005 (SC TPB) 192 pgs

cover by EisnerWritten and illustrated by Will Eisner.
assists, colours, letters, etc: various.

additional notes: intro by Neil Gaiman.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed May, 2012

The Spirit is one of the most highly regarded creations in the annals of comic books, even if the character's populist recognition is considerably less than, say, Superman, or The X-Men. Heck...growing up, I had never actually read a Spirit story. The original series was a newspaper insert back in the 1940s and 1950s -- a rather unusual format. When most newspaper strips were a full page at most, The Spirit was a 7 page story delivered to your door every week -- insuring a significant readership beyond the comics fan.

And it can be a series that maybe takes a bit to groove to. The first couple of times I read a Spirit story...I kind of shrugged, applauded its stylistic innovation, but wasn't fully smitten. But reading a few more stories...well, I became much more appreciative.

Somewhere I saw a quote claiming the Spirit was the most original creation in comics.

It ain't!

As a concept, The Spirit had so little in the way of a signature characteristic that once when they had considered dropping The Spirit's eye mask, they decided against it, fearing there would be nothing left to distinguish the character. The initial concept is that "criminologist" Denny Colt is seemingly murdered in the course of an investigation, and decides to let the world think he is dead, while he continues to fight crime behind a mask (while wearing an otherwise regular suit, hat and tie). What's a "criminologist" you might ask? Not sure, but I think it was just a pseudo-official term used for heroes who weren't cops...but weren't private eyes (it cropped up in various comic book and radio series back then). Anyway, The Spirit's chief confidante is Police Commissioner Dolan, and an occasionally changing kid sidekick. As I say: nothing too original (many super heroes had Police Commissioner friends and some had sidekicks). There were a few other recurring supporting characters -- Constable Klink, a comic relief beat cop, and Ellen Dolan, the Commissioner's daughter and The Spirit's sometimes girlfriend. And, of course, an array of recurring femme fatales that became a signature of the series -- lethal ladies who maintained on going love/hate relations with The Spirit. Although even that wasn't that unusual -- Batman had his Catwoman, Airboy had his Valkyrie, Pat had his Dragon Lady.

So why is The Spirit so well regarded...more than half a Century later?

Because it wasn't so much the concept, but the execution that made the series such a seminal work that arguably redefined the potential and possibilities of the medium -- and which, in many ways, is still pioneering ahead of most of the comics on the shelves today! A quote on the cover of this TPB proclaims it the "Citizen Kane of comics"...and that's a good analogy. In that just as the movie Citizen Kane is significant less for its basic story, and more for its ground-breaking direction and editing, so is the same true of The Spirit. There have been a couple of Spirit movies -- a TV one in the 1980s, and a badly reviewed motion picture in 2006 -- but though there's nothing wrong with doing a Spirit movie...one could argue two-thirds of the series' effectiveness is the medium in which it was presented.

Not to mention the 7 page format, allowing for a lot of variety in stories and themes and styles. Comedic...and darkly gritty. Action/suspense...and emotional/character driven. Minimalist tales, which almost take on the aspect of a vignette carefully dissected and expanded over 7 pages...to complex tales that cram whole plots, twists, and character development into a third of the size of a modern comic...and still tell more than many multi-issue arcs. In some The Spirit is front and centre as our focal hero...in others he appears in just a few panels, while we focus on the losers and dreamers caught up in the crimes and misdemeanours of the mean streets. Stories range from tales set in urban tenements...to globe hopping intrigue in exotic lands...to stories of fantasy, SF and whimsical surrealism (like a tale told from the point of view...of a toy gun!)

And the visuals are part of the series' effectiveness. Particularly considered in the context of the time and Eisner's compeers, when a lot of mainstream comics were -- frankly -- crudely drawn. And even the great artists of the day (Alex Raymond and others) were strict Romanticists, drawing elegantly rendered, realist illustrations. But Eisner married different impulses. There's a deliberate cartooniness to the art -- The Spirit with his broad shoulders and rugged jaw, looking as much like a caricature of a hero as a hero, while most of the other characters looked more like they should be trading quips in Mad Magazine (though often his women, the signature femme fatales, were drawn to evoke a more sensual realism). This cartooniness suits the series' forays into whimsy and humour...but also suits the gritty and dark side, too, providing a relief valve, if you will, to the violence and brutality that, frankly, can seem a bit shocking when you realize this was being delivered with your morning newspaper! Yet, for all this cartooniness...there's a vivid realism to the work that far outstrips many of Eisner's contemporaries. The figures are modelled and shadowed in a way that gives them a definite realist vibe, a three dimension. And the environments -- the dirty tenements, crooked streets, or lonely country roads are equally gorgeously realized.

My main exposure to The Spirit was reading some old Warren Magazine reprints, which presented them on over-sized tabloid pages, and in black and white (artfully shaded and hued with grey washes) which I kind of felt was the ideal way to see the art -- big enough to appreciate Eisner's detail, and with the grey hues perfectly evoking the film noir-ish atmosphere. But seeing it here, in full, bright, primary colours, and on regular comic book-sized pages...it still works (though I still prefer the over-sized black & white).

And beyond the simple drawing fundamentals, was Eisner's use of composition -- close-ups and long shots, off-kilter angles and unusual perspectives (telling scenes literally through a character's eyes) with the shadows as important as the light. Again with the Citizen Kane comparison: it's the telling of the tales, as much as the tales themselves, that can linger with you -- and make these decades old stories still seem radical and experimental even compared to the latest issue of Batman or The Flash and far ahead of most indie comix (The Spirit being a rare comic that is embraced both by mainstream super hero creators...and the Artsy, independent crowd).

And because this is a collection of 23 seven page stories, it's just a fun collection to have, allowing for a bit of hit and miss (not that there are any real misses in this collection). It's a good collection, balancing the variety of stories, so that it doesn't lean too much one way or the other -- there are adventure stories about The Spirit, and tales where he barely appears. And various of the signature ladies appear -- from Silk Satin, to P'Gell, and Sand Saref (one of the series' few two-parters and interesting because it was clearly the template for Frank Miller's Elektra story published in Daredevil #168 -- right down to a climax on a dock). There are funny stories, gritty stories, and just plain weird stories. A story like "Lorelei Rox" does have a nice spooky vibe, thanks to the art. While "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble" I think Eisner himself cited as one of his personal favourites. And, of course, a Christmas story is included (from 1948) -- the series having done annual Christmas-set adventures.

Yet The Spirit -- both the series, and this collection -- is not without shortcomings.

These are good choices and, as I say offer a good balance (the editor not allowing his personal preferences to skew it too much one way or the other). The general consensus is that The Spirit really came into its own -- and Eisner was fully in command of his craft -- following World War II...so the collection only offers a couple of stories from before then, including The Spirit's origin tale. But I would've preferred a couple more -- particularly in a collection that offers so many stories. It does seem odd to have a character regarded as so much the acme of creative endeavour...where we blithely skip over more than half the series' run! Maybe it would make the later stories more impressive if we could contrast them with earlier, more conventional tales. And I mentioned earlier that Ellen Dolan was a recurring character and The Spirit's sometimes girlfriend...but Ellen barely appears in this collection!

Likewise, one suspects there was a deliberate decision to downplay Ebony in this collection. Ebony was the Spirit's original boy side kick...and a problematic creation. It's too bad, really, because as a character, Ebony was brave, loyal, and smart...there was nothing wrong with him as a person. But he can make you cringe...because Eisner drew the black Ebony in a ridiculously caricatured way and talking in a stereotypical patois of "sho' nuff, mist' spirit!" And seeing him in colour (as opposed to the black & white reprints I was more familiar with) just exacerbates it. Eisner, himself, bowed to criticism even at the time, replacing him with first an Eskimo sidekick (not seen here) then the white boy, Sammy...who does get featured a bit more prominently in a tale or two. It's a tough call -- I can understand why the editors might choose to not feature Ebony much (he only appears in a few panels)...but at the same time, if you're going to present the classic Spirit...is there any point in Bowdlerizing it? Perhaps stories featuring Ebony could've been used but with an editorial pointing out the problem with the character.

After all, I don't see a certain healthy criticism as somehow contrary to admiration -- indeed, acknowledging a series (or a creator's) faults while praising his strengths surely just shows how much respect you have for the material...as opposed to just being a slavish fan boy. I mean, though one can defend Ebony in the context of the time, and the fact that, as noted, all the characters were drawn to a varying degree as caricatures, nonetheless you can still argue there was a problem...Ebony was drawn different, and certainly his speech pattern was different. I seem to recall many decades later Eisner himself acknowledged the controversy -- but more as if it was just the fickleness of the marketplace, rather than Eisner accepting there was anything wrong with his presentation. I mean, when faced with criticism at the time over Ebony...Eisner chose to drop the character rather than simply tone down his more extreme cliches. Likewise, one could argue there's a slight sexist, or misogynist streak to the stories...plenty of tales of henpecked husbands driven to crimes by shrewish wives, as though behind every villainous man is an even more evil woman! Again, though, like with Ebony, one could argue Eisner was simply playing in the realm of caricature and the cliches of his era.

And as much as reading these old stories can leave you stunned at how stylistically progressive Eisner was, how a lot of it seems edgy and experimental in a way that leaves most modern comics choking on his dust -- one can also argue that what Eisner was doing suited the format. The mix of whimsy and drama, and experimental narratives and composition suits the 7 page story format -- making them delightful little confections. But, to be fair, applying these tricks and innovations to, say, Batman or Spider-Man might not work as well -- The Spirit stories delightful but, in a way, slight. In a mainstream comic, sustaining 20 some pages, where the story is as much a drama about the hero as an adventure, it's true that some of these tricks and techniques can be a bit gimmicky. That doesn't mean that most modern comics creators couldn't learn a lot from reading Eisner's The Spirit...but that doesn't mean they could, or should, try and translate it wholesale to, say, The X-Men.

All these decades later, one still tends to think of The Spirit as being these old stories by Eisner...with many of The Spirit comics magazines over the years just being reprints of these seminal tales. But there have been occasional revivals featuring new material, by new creators. Some mimic the traditional style, presenting anthologies of short tales, attempting to replicate Eisner's quirk and experimentation. Others have tried to re-define the character in a more conventional format telling full length, 20-page stories...sometimes with decent effect, sometimes emphasizing what I meant about the character and the style suiting the shorter page count. And some of these tales have, indeed, come close to matching Eisner's work in terms of style, and tone, and experimentation. Perhaps proving not so much that people can't match Eisner's imagination...just not in his quantity. After all, a writer/artist team collaborating on a single, 7 page story that is as good as Eisner is fine...but Eisner was churning them out every week for years! (Although, to be honest, Eisner had assistants, so it's possible there was more than just "his" genius on display).

Anyway, as mentioned, there have been plenty of Spirit reprints over the years -- but not always easy to find in the back issue bins. And there are also a few hardcover and TPB collections. And as far as it goes, The Best of The Spirit TPB is as good a collection as any for these looking to sample the series...and it's a series worth sampling.

Cover price: $14.99 USA. 



 

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